Successful Trailer Loading

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By Ellen Ofstad

Loading is something many people don't think about doing until the day that the horse needs to be transported somewhere. If they are not sure about how the horse loads, or maybe they know that the horse can be "a little difficult", they might start loading some time before they have to get going. Often they start out very patiently with the horse, but as the clock keeps ticking, the stress begins to show, and the situation often gets more and more out of control. Eventually most people manage to get the horse in the trailer, hurry to shut the gate, and off they go. With a sigh of relief they think that at least they don't have to deal with loading again for some time.

The next time they want to load the horse it is the same thing as it was the last time, although it often tends to take even longer to get the job done. Many people go through this with their horse year after year, and loading becomes something both the horse and the human really dread. (Photo 1) The problem is that they are not preparing the horse for the task. When you postpone the training until you actually need to get the job done you have failed if the horse doesn't end up inside the trailer with the gate shut behind it. This makes the task a lot more difficult than it really needs to be, and even if you succeed you still make the horse associate the loading with something negative, thus making it increasingly difficult.

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There's a big difference between practicing trailer loading and actually loading a horse. If you have a horse that's not good at loading you should invest time and effort in getting the horse good at this in order to be prepared when you really need it. Otherwise you will be forced to invest the time and effort on the days that you need to load the horse, and under those circumstances your chances of making this a good experience for yourself and the horse are very small. Not to mention that you have to deal with the same problem every single time, and this is something that really takes a lot of patience.

Loading is something that seems to bring out the worst in both people and horses, but there are ways to make this become easy, even with horses that have a long history of putting gray hairs on their owners' heads. The best thing of course would be to avoid this ever becoming a problem in the first place. Taking this matter seriously could even save the horse's life if you one day have to take him to the vet in a hurry.

Transportation is a very frightening experience for many horses. Studies show that horses often develop a fever during long trips, and this proves to us how traumatic this may be for the horse.

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There are many reasons why a horse can have trailer-loading problems. Some horses are afraid because this is a new and unfamiliar situation. Horses are skeptics to anything new, one of the main reasons why this species has survived 50 million years. It's against their nature to enter a small room. In addition to this, horses are naturally wary about the ground, something that prevents wild horses from stepping into a marsh, which could result in death. When a horse enters a trailer it feels that the floor moves, so the trailer's floor seems unsafe. No wonder horses regard the trailer as a death trap! The fact that many horses go into the trailer in spite of this only shows us how cooperative they are, and that they have an excellent ability to learn.

The most common reason for the horse's problem is the manner in which people go about the trailer loading. Forcing the horse into the trailer, although he's afraid, makes loading increasingly difficult. You may eventually manage to get the horse into the trailer, but in the long run this will cost you and the horse more hours and more frustration than if you had taken the time to practice trailer loading. Stressful situations will also affect the relationship between you and the horse. How can you expect the horse to trust you if you pressure him into what he regards as a dangerous situation, and on top of that get angry with him?

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The first step in trailer loading is having the horse good at leading and ground manners. The horse should stop when you stop, walk when you walk and yield to pressure. It is important to be consistent about this whenever you handle the horse. If the horse tends to walk on top of you or drag you around when you handle him on a daily basis he will learn that this is ok, and he'll do it when you try to get him into the trailer, too. Be friendly and consistent when you teach the horse what is acceptable behavior.

In a loading situation you will need to ask the horse to come forward, back up and enter a narrow space. You may have to tell him to move his hindquarters in order to straighten up when backing down the ramp. These are things that you should practice in advance to ensure that the horse understands your signals. (Photos 2 and 3) Use your imagination to create situations that are similar to the various elements of trailer loading. In the trailer the horse has to go into something narrow, walk on strange ground, back down a slant or off the edge, get under the roof. It's a lot to ask of the horse to deal with all at once! The good news is that you can work on these elements before even going near the trailer. You can for instance ask the horse to walk across a tarp, go between trees and under branches and back down hills. Teach him to back up in a circle in both directions and even in a zigzag. Practice this when standing in front of the horse. When this goes well you can progress to backing him straight down a hill or off a small ledge.

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The loading problem doesn't necessarily have to have anything to do with the trailer itself. It may be that the horse associates the situation with stress after having been forced to load before he was ready for it. It's important that you're not in a hurry and that you end the training while it's still going well. Divide the training into several small goals. One goal is getting the horse to relax beside the trailer. (Photo 4) The next could be getting him to put a hoof on the ramp and backing him off. (Photo 5) Then you can start practicing stepping on and off the ramp until the horse is comfortable doing this. The next step will be to get the horse to go further up on the ramp. (Photo 6) As the horse becomes comfortable with each step the next one often comes easily.

Make sure you don't take the horse further onto the ramp than he's comfortable with. Some horses will try to run into the trailer. This doesn't mean that they're not afraid of loading; it only shows that they're uncomfortable stepping on the ramp. This is a common cause for horses who rush out of the trailer. If the horse is afraid of the ramp, you need to practice standing and walking on it, and not let the horse avoid the problem by rushing in or out.

The next goal is to get the horse's hind legs onto the ramp. (Photo 7) Again you need to ask the horse to go on and off the ramp several times until he does this with ease. Sometimes you ask the horse to back all the way down the ramp. Other times you just ask him to take one step back before you ask him to move forward again. Now it's time for the front legs to step into the actual trailer. (Photo 8) Make sure that the horse is completely comfortable with what you're doing before moving on to the next step.

Do not attempt to close the trailer before the horse will remain inside for a few minutes without being tied up. If the horse goes out, calmly ask him to re-enter the trailer. (Photo 9) Do not try to prevent him from unloading. After a while the horse will discover that it's easier to just remain inside than to load over and over. Remember that if the horse frequently wants to leave the trailer, he's still scared of being there. Give the horse the time it takes and don't get angry or irritated when he wants to leave. If you push him at this point you will only make him more insecure and everything will take even more time.

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When the horse is able to remain inside the trailer (Photo 10) it's time to start lifting the ramp. At first you should just lift it slightly up from the ground before putting it down again. This way the horse gets used to the movement and the sounds behind him, something that can be very frightening. Gradually you can lift the ramp a little higher, but pay close attention to the horse's reactions. If you see that he's tensing up you mustn't lift the ramp any higher until he's fully relaxed. When you can lift the ramp all the way up and down again without the horse trying to get out, he's ready to get tied and have the ramp closed. Now you can leave the horse in a closed trailer for increasingly longer periods of time. The next step will be to take him for small trips so that he'll get used to being inside the trailer during movement.

The horse doesn't realize that our final goal is for him to remain inside a closed trailer. You should end the training when things are going a little bit better than when you started that day. If your horse was terrified of the trailer, but he's now relaxed when standing close to it, your training has been a success that day, even if he hasn't touched the ramp. It's better to take small frequent steps, than to practice for hours every now and then, and it's much easier for both of you.

When you approach the trailer with the horse, his reactions will tell you where the problem starts. For some horses this can be at quite a distance. Others can get halfway onto the ramp before you notice signs of fear. Pay close attention to your horse in order to discover when he starts to look worried. This is where you need to start. It's important to begin the training where the horse is at, and not where you want him to be. Forget all thoughts such as "he knows how to do this" and "he's done this many times before". Horses don't lie. If your horse shows signs of worry, he really is. There may be many reasons for this, but only time and patience can help the horse to overcome his fears. The more you pressure a nervous horse, the more frightened he'll become.

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It may seem like this method will take an awfully long time. However, the fastest way to get a horse used to something is to proceed slowly. Give the horse the time he needs. If you take short cuts, the horse will only become nervous again and you'll have to start from scratch all over again. Horses are not the only ones who have bad experiences with trailer loading. A lot of people get stressed just thinking about it. Most people rarely do this, but when they do they're in a hurry and end up fighting with the horse. No wonder they dread working on trailer loading!

It's important that the horse learns to associate the trailer and the loading with something positive. Very few horses mind going into their stall. Especially at feeding time! This is because the horse associates the stall with relaxation and food. Why not do the same things with the trailer? Place the trailer conveniently so that you can practice trailer loading at all times. This training should become a part of a daily routine until the horse doesn't hesitate about entering and remaining inside the trailer. After riding you can go over to the trailer to relax there for a little while. This way the trailer becomes a place of relaxation; a reward for the riding!

Another good idea is to feed the horse in the trailer. Don't try to trick the horse to load by holding the food in front of him, but leave it in there so that he gets a reward when he comes inside, just like he does in the stall. If the horse is still scared of entering the trailer you can let him eat on the ramp.

Make this a time of enjoyment and closeness for you and the horse, before or after riding. Most people spend a lot of time talking to friends when they're at the stables. Why not take your horse and friends out to the trailer and talk there? It doesn't matter if it's just for a few minutes or for an hour. What's important is that the horse associates the trailer with something pleasant.

Many people don't have their own trailer to practice with. If your horse has a problem with trailer loading you should consider renting or borrowing one. It doesn't necessarily have to be too expensive if a few of you chip in and rent one together. Maybe you could even get hold of an old trailer that's no longer used for transportation, but that's good enough to use for training.

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Once the horse has learned that trailer loading is something positive, you don't need to spend as much time on this. However, every now and then you should train a little bit just to reinforce the habit. The most important thing from now on is how you drive the trailer when the horse is inside. Drive slowly and carefully, especially when you make a turn or stop. Try to find out how the horse prefers to stand during transportation. Some horses need space on both sides, without partition walls, while others are more comfortable when they have something to lean on. Some horses prefer to stand on a certain side. Recent studies show that most horses find standing diagonally to be the easiest way to keep their balance, and the best ways seemed to be when they could travel standing backwards at an angle. Since the horses' position in the trailer is an individual preference, the best way to find out how to place your horse is to try out different options and see what the horse is most comfortable with.

Another important consideration to make is where you're taking the horse. If the journey ends up at the vet every time, he can associate the trailer with something unpleasant. Make sure to take the horse to places that he will enjoy. When trying out different positions for the horse in the trailer you could drive to a nice place, take the horse out for a rest and let him eat a little grass. Then you could try out another way for him to stand in the trailer on the way home.

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Working with horses should be enjoyable for the both the horse and the human. By understanding what is natural for horses, how their instincts are and how they think and feel, you can be better able to imagine how things seem from their point of view. Horses don't act badly because they want to agitate you. There are three main reasons why horses don't cooperate - they are in pain, they are afraid or they don't understand. It is up to the humans to figure out what the horse is trying to tell you, and help the horse through his problems.



About the author:
Ellen Ofstad is based in Ås, Norway and teaches seminars all over Norway and Sweden. She has been to the US and may plan to visit and give seminars again this year. The seminars are about horse psychology and training, but also include information on the horse's teeth, saddle fitting and other equipment, collection and anatomy, and more. She has produced two videos, "Motivate Your Horse - Natural and Positive Training", and "Horses With Problems" Parts 1 and 2.
Contact Ellen at and